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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy



The unusually fluid battle conditions on the vast expanse of desert in the Second Libyan Campaign, when there was no defined line between the opposing forces and supply lines were upset, created for the field medical units peculiar circumstances which were not repeated in later campaigns. All the field medical units, with the exception of B Company 4 Field Ambulance which formed the ADS for 4 Infantry Brigade, were at one time or another in the hands of the enemy. Most of the men of 4 Field Ambulance, and B Company 5 Field Ambulance, some of A Company 6 Field Ambulance, some of 4 Field Hygiene Section, and the Mobile Surgical Unit (less drivers) eventually escaped or were rescued and formed a basis for the reconstitution of the medical units.

NZMC Casualties

The Medical Corps casualties in killed, wounded, and prisoners of war were:

Killed in Action and Died of Wounds Offrs ORs Wounded Offrs ORs Prisoners of War Offrs ORs Total
4 Fd Amb 6 1 6 4 1 18
5 Fd Amb 3 1 6 7 81 98
6 Fd Amb 1 2 5 86 94
4 Fd Hyg Sec 17 17
RMOs 1* 1* 2
—— —— —— —— —— —— ——
1 9 3 14 17 185 229
page 283

Casualties among the ASC attached were 2 officers and 108 other ranks, mostly prisoners of war.

As prisoners of war, 43.8 per cent of the strength of the field medical units was lost to the New Zealand Division.

Wounded Treated

Circumstances were such that it was difficult to arrive at an accurate figure for the total number of wounded (New Zealand, British, South African, and enemy) treated by the Division's medical units, but the following figures taken from unit returns at the time are fairly correct:

4 Fd Amb 740
5 Fd Amb 750
6 Fd Amb 1010
Mob Surg Unit 160
Total 2660

Of these 2660 cases, approximately 1650 were New Zealand casualties.1

Losses of Medical Equipment

Equipment losses were heavy, being similar in magnitude to those suffered in Greece and Crete. Fifth Field Ambulance came out of the battle without anything in the way of medical equipment, while 6 Field Ambulance had only a few instruments which some members of the unit carried out in their packs. Fourth Field Ambulance, however, had retained a fair amount of its equipment, and 4 Field Hygiene Section had few deficiencies.

Pending the re-equipment of the field ambulances, in which there was a delay of some weeks, there was an acute shortage of expendable medical stores, much on the same lines as that which occurred when the Division returned from Crete. No. 2 General Hospital at Garawla helped to tide the field medical units over a rather difficult period in this respect.

Transport Losses

Enemy depredations had also produced considerable deficiencies in the vehicle strength of the medical units. The following table page 284 sets out the authorised war establishments and the actual holdings of each unit at the end of December.

Unit Motor Cycles Cars, 4 Seater Lorries, 3-ton Motor Ambs Water-tank Trailers
War Establishment 5 3 10 8 3
Vehicles held by—
4 Fd Amb 1 1 5 6 1
5 Fd Amb 2 1 5 4
6 Fd Amb 1 3 3
4 Fd Hyg Sec The only transport held was one 8-cwt truck.
Mob Surg Unit Transport deficiencies were one staff car; one water-tank trailer; one motor ambulance car; one motor cycle.

General Health of Troops

The general health of the New Zealand troops remained remarkably good from the time of the start of active operations on 18 November, particularly in view of the severity of the fighting, the shortage of water, and the cold weather. The only infectious disease giving rise to any anxiety was diphtheria, of which four cases occurred in November and six in December. Relatively few cases of dysentery occurred either in the field or on the return of the Division to Baggush. This was in striking contrast to the state of affairs existing among the enemy, for on 28 November, when 800 German and Italian prisoners were placed in the prisoner-of-war cage near the New Zealand medical centre near Point 175, approximately 400 of them were found to be suffering from dysentery. There were very few cases of anxiety state till the battle was over.

Hygiene and Sanitation

The standard of sanitation was reported as very high, as evidenced by the low incidence of sickness. In the desert shallow trench latrines were dug by the troops. In the field ambulances deep latrines were dug and fly-proofed box seats were used. All refuse was buried. Water was carried in two-gallon tins. Originally it was not chlorinated and had to be treated with WSP, but later the water drawn was satisfactory.

Medical Plan Reviewed

The original medical plan of the Division was entirely upset by the enemy mobile columns which roamed at will behind the Division and on its axis. No axis remained, and convoys went to and fro across the desert no-man's-land where armoured and motorised columns of both forces were roaming free and occasionally meeting in mobile battles.

page 285

When the medical units were concentrated there was only one medical centre for the whole Division where adequate surgical work could be carried out and numbers of casualties attended to. When this was captured the Division lost all its surgical facilities and the main medical units all their supplies and their power of evacuation of casualties. They were, however, able to carry on their function of caring for, and giving medical attention to, over 1000 casualties. Unfortunately, the supply of water was inadequate, but otherwise it was possible to give satisfactory attention to the wounded.

After the capture of the main units, 4 and 6 Brigades were serviced by their attached ADSs and were able to evacuate the fresh casualties to Tobruk. Fifth Brigade still had its ADS and casualties were evacuated to the Indian CCS at Sidi Omar.

The Division was undoubtedly well served by 7 MAC and Lieutenant Bennett was decorated with the MC for his able and fearless work.

The only serious difficulties in attending to the wounded arose because of the capture of the MDS centre. This resulted in scarcity of supplies, particularly of water, and was a serious matter in cases such as those of abdominal injury. The capture occurred the day after the main battle and prevented the evacuation of the casualties which had been held because of interference by the enemy on the lines to the rear. Perhaps it was as well that sufficient medical personnel were also captured to enable the wounded to be well looked after. The eggs were certainly all in one basket, but there seemed no protection for the eggs even if they had been well scattered.

The senior divisional medical officers had nearly all already had experience in Greece and Crete and were capable men. The Medical Corps suffered, as did the rest of the Division, in a stern and very even battle where the enemy showed great initiative and daring, especially in his use of tanks. The Division had heavy casualties and lost many prisoners, but had inflicted crippling losses on the enemy. Under such conditions the medical loss was not out of proportion, and the 2 NZEF medical services recovered quite well and quite quickly.

1 2 NZEF casualties for the campaign were:

Killed and Died of Wounds879
Prisoners of war2042

* Captain W. L. M. Gilmour, 20 Battalion, killed in action, and Captain G. C. Jennings, 26 Battalion, prisoner of war.